WHO key messages for COP21

World Health Organization at COP21

Climate change is affecting health now, and will continue to do so. WHO conservatively estimates that climate change will cause some 250,000 additional deaths per year by the 2030s. The main health risks are more intense heatwaves and fires; increased prevalence of food-, water- and vector-borne diseases; increased likelihood of undernutrition resulting from diminished food production in poor regions; and lost work capacity in vulnerable populations.  Uncertain but potentially more serious risks include: breakdown in food systems, violent conflict associated with resource scarcity and population movement, and exacerbation of poverty, undermining the health and other objectives of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda.Poorer populations and children are disproportionately at risk, with different impacts on women and men. Overall, climate change is expected to widen existing health inequalities, both between and within populations.

Health protection is possible, and should be a priority for investment of climate adaptation funds. Health can be protected against climate change through protecting and improving the social and environmental determinants of health, such as water and sanitation, ensuring equitable access to health services, and health interventions that are targeted specifically at climate-related risks, such as surveillance and response for climate-sensitive infectious diseases. These are good investments for both development and climate funds, as they are proven to save lives now, and can also strengthen long-term resilience to climate change.

Mitigating climate change can bring large and immediate benefits for health, and for the economy. Policies that reduce carbon emissions can also yield large, local, near-term health benefits for populations at all stages of development. The most obvious gains are from reducing the annual mortality attributable to ambient and household air pollution (about 4.3 million and 3.7 million, respectively), which is among the largest causes of death globally.  Implementing proven interventions to reduce emissions of short-lived climate pollutants, such as achieving higher vehicle emissions and efficiency standards, would be expected to save approximately 2.4 million lives a year and reduce global warming by about 0.5°C by 2050. Placing a price on polluting fuels to compensate their negative health impacts would be expected to cut outdoor air pollution deaths by half, reduce carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 per cent, and raise approximately US$ 3 trillion per year in revenue – over half the total value of health spending by all of the world’s governments.

Healthcare provision is responsible for approximately 10 per cent of global Gross Domestic Product (GDP) – and its size and contribution to climate change is growing. The health sector can also improve its own practices and at the same time minimise its carbon emissions. Health services in some developed countries are responsible for between five and fifteen per cent of carbon emissions. Energy efficiency, shifting to renewables, and greener procurement and delivery chains can both improve services and cut carbon emissions. In contrast, many health facilities in the poorest countries lack any electricity supply; for resource-constrained settings and off-grid hospitals and clinics, low-carbon energy solutions can form an important component of an overall energy supply strategy.

A strong climate change agreement is a strong health agreement. An effective climate agreement is essential to safeguard public health.  An agreement that reinforces the original UNFCCC principle of health as a primary motivation for action, identifies health as an adaptation priority, and promotes climate change mitigation policies that also bring health benefits, would be even more beneficial.  It would help bring about a planet that is not only more environmentally intact, but also has cleaner air, more abundant and safer freshwater and food, more effective and fairer health and social protection systems – and as a result, healthier people.